Any notion of whizzing along the highways in our convertible – K’s hair horizontal in the breeze along with my cravat, me pouring us both a plastic cup of Bollinger and throwing my head back to laugh at the sky – is put paid to immediately.
Firstly, we don’t own a convertible. Secondly, we’ve hardly driven a hundred metres and are not yet outside Tarifa‘s limits when we find ourselves in a traffic jam. The road to the beaches further along the little town’s coast is packed with Algecirans, their folding chairs and screaming children. I’m not getting a terribly “road trip” vibe from the whole thing. If this were the opening scene of a road trip movie, for example, it would be shit.
Thirdly, I don’t wear cravats – though this is something I will certainly reconsider if K ever gets us that convertible.
When we finally reach the intersection she decides to head for Algeciras to the right instead of Cadiz to the left. We get a reasonably clear lane and from Algeciras there’s another motorway up to Jerez and from there to Seville. It’s an inspired decision as although it puts a few kilometres on us we save a lot of time by avoiding the sludgy beach traffic. K is pleased and spends much of the drive to Jerez congratulating herself.
As soon as the car is actually moving I put Rocky Road To Dublin on. It’s one of our road songs. We won’t be getting quite as far as Dublin this time but it’s in the right direction. The motorway passes through some hilly and thoroughly scorched country, the modern road at odds with the abandoned buildings visible occasionally at its side, or rather at the side of the older road the motorway has superseded – a derelict gasolinera, a defunct school, an old farmhouse.
Between Jerez and Seville we drive past high corn on one side, oleander bushes in pink and white on the other. The colours thereafter are murky and burnt – a patchwork of browns and washed-out greens. In the parched, harsh glare of summer light, the open country looks inherently historic, somehow. Flavoured by the past, fizzing with the forgotten and misremembered. Like an oil painting with a motorway in it.
The handsome haciendas in their orchards, the electronic fire risk alerts on the overpasses, the blue and white road signs that glint metallically as we pass beneath and they catch the sun’s bounce. As we near Seville a tall yellow storehouse of some kind that I never tire of seeing. Windowless, it’s the kind of building that makes one think of words like tank and silo, and process.
We cross the Guadalquivir on Seville’s impressive suspension bridge. Anything north of here is new territory for us; it’s now that our little waltz with the undiscovered will begin. The first surprise is an unexpected view of a site that has been of interest to me – the few remaining pavilions from Seville’s World Expo event in 1992. Striking constructions erected to showcase nations such as Mexico, Morocco, Hungary and France, they now find themselves inaccessible to the public, in private hands and surrounded by the banal in what has become a business park in a less attractive corner of this decidedly attractive city.
I celebrate the moment by cracking open a bag of nuts. Later we stop at a rest area and get a bocadillo, stretching our legs by the car as beneath our feet concrete crackles in the heat. An hour south of Merida the landscape opens right out and everything is the colour of honey, or toast.
The place names have pattern, music, the promise of story. We pass signs for Almendrejo, Carrascalejo, Esparragalejo. Almonds, oak, asparagus. I’m reminded of the Realejo in Granada, a hillside barrio where the royal family grew their fruit. It must be that the suffix ejo relates to this growing. I resolve to look it up. Many of the fields we pass have a resident bird of prey, hovering perfectly still in a headwind, waiting for prey.
We take a room in Cáceres. The first stop, the first Unesco tick on our list. Our room is in the old town but the real attraction here is the even older town, which they nowadays call the Ciudad Monumental, or Monumental City. Not because it’s big (it isn’t), but because it’s full of monuments – palaces, churches, more palaces, towers and more palaces. And storks nests.
We stroll through it. There is no evidence of the 21st century here, or of the 19th for that matter, and precious little of the 17th. It is a perfectly, almost spookily preserved walled city that exhibits its Roman past, its Arab period, its flowering Jewish Golden Age. The rich of several cultures and epochs built their homes and places of worship here. There are balconies for Juliet, turrets for Rapunzel.
We’ve never seen anything quite like it. They shoot movies here and we can see why. No need to remove any tell-tale intrusions of modernity – there are none.
Driving north is driving away from cheap tapas but we find some down to earth food before falling into bed. Extremadura is a hot place and K sleeps like a shrouded corpse, the sheet pulled over her head to get away from the aircon which I leave on all night.
In the morning we head for Castilla y León, and Salamanca.
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